A very common question we receive here at Cosplay Photographers is “Why do the colors in my photos look different when I print them or upload them online?” One simple answer: Color Spaces! Read on to see what these are, how they affect your images, and how to convert your photos from one Color Space to another.
Color Gamut, also known as Color Space, is the numerical representation of a maximum range of colors. When working on computers, we’re used to seeing colors represented in the sRGB space, with ranges from 0 (darkest) to 255 (brightest) across three color channels: Red, Green, and Blue. These colors are sometimes expressed in their HTML hexadecimal notation, such as #AABBCC.
The question then arises, just how “red” is #FF0000 (255 red, 0 green, 0 blue)? This is numerically the highest value for the red channel, but how does that match up to what we see with the human eye?
The idea of the “Color Space” is to set a consistent standard for mapping these numerical values to human perceptual color. The chart to the right illustrates some of the most common Color Spaces. In the background is a horseshoe representing the human perceptual color range. Standard computer screens are designed around sRGB, the smallest color space listed in the graph. In 1998 Adobe Systems created an expanded color space for Photoshop 5 known as AdobeRGB. Following up from that PhotoRGB expands even further to encompass almost the entire visual spectrum of colors.
There are many different types of color spaces beyond these which use RGB. The RGB color spaces are designed around the idea of starting with darkness, and then increasing light, such as shining a flashlight into a dark room. Turning on more lights brightens the room, by combining with the lights already on. The CMYK Color (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) Spaces work in the exact opposite manner. The idea behind CMYK is to start with pure white, such as a piece of paper about to be printed on. Each of the three colors in CMYK are used to stop light from reflecting off of the paper, making it appear darker. As any pre-schooler doing finger painting will tell you though, when you mix all the inks or paints together, you get a muddy brown color. This is where the K (Black) in CMYK comes in. This neutral toned ink is used to present black and to help darken the other colors by mixing near them.
Most digital cameras today have the ability to save files in at least two major color spaces: sRGB and AdobeRGB. Below are some examples of Color Space menus on various digital cameras.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Changing the Color Space value on the camera itself will effect the output of JPG images, and the JPG preview images embedded inside of RAW files. Beyond the embedded JPG preview, it will NOT alter the output of a RAW file in any other way. RAW files are intended to store the full maximum color space available to the camera’s imaging sensor, and to use a RAW processor to convert them into a standard color space for editing and publishing.
What Color Space should I use, and why?
Answer: Each color space has its own intended usage, each listed below.
When dealing with print publications, CMYK is generally the preferred color space to work in. This color space best represents the limitations of outputting certain vibrant colors with the ink available in a common 4-ink or 5-ink printer system. If the images are intended to be published online only, then this color space probably isn’t too desirable.
This is the preferred color space for working with high-quality digital photographs, as the name of the color space itself implies. The wide color space is used for more than just capturing vibrant colors, it is also used to help retain more detail than AdobeRGB or sRGB through each stage of editing work flow process. The main drawback to PhotoRGB is the limited software available that has support for it.
This color space is preferred when both compatibility and color management are key. Virtually every application and camera in the world that supports color spaces and color management will recognize and work with the AdobeRGB color space. The main advantage is a smaller color space than the newer PhotoRGB.
The obvious drawback to sRGB is the very limited range of colors. Besides that, this color space has one very important advantage over all other color spaces. Any piece of software which does not support color management at all will use this default color space. When images saved in other color spaces are opened in an application which doesn’t support color management at all, the colors become skewed.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Not all web browsers support color management, especially mobile browsers. It is generally recommended to process images in your work flow in one of the larger color spaces, and then convert the image to sRGB as the final stage if you are intending to publish the image to the web. Below is an example of each of the four color spaces talked about in this article, and how they appear in a program which doesn’t support color management. As you can see, sRGB appears normal, AdobeRGB looks less saturated, PhotoRGB appears even less saturated than AdobeRGB, and CMYK is simply the wrong colors entirely.
Changing Color Space in Adobe Photoshop
- Select “Edit” from the top menu
- Click on “Convert to Profile”
- In the “Profile” drop down box, select the Color Space you wish to convert to
- Click “OK”, and you’re done!
Changing Color Space in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom
- Open the “Export” dialog
- Scroll down to the “File Settings” section in the right pane
- Select your desired Color Space from the drop down list
- Complete the export process as you normally would
So there it is. Color space management is a small yet important aspect of any photographer’s workflow, and especially so for those who intent to print as well as publish on the web. If you have question or feedback, please leave them below and we will respond as soon as we can!
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